Kenya probes starvation cult as death toll rises to more than 70

NAIROBI – Kenyan authorities have exhumed dozens of bodies, mostly children, from a forest in southeastern Kenya in what appears to be a religious famine cult, and Home Affairs Cabinet Secretary Kithure Kindiki he described it as a “massacre”.

More than 70 People have been confirmed dead, a local police chief told the Associated Press. Charles Kamau, a criminal investigation officer in the Malindi area, said most of the bodies recovered from the graves were children.

Kamau added that at least four had starved to death, although autopsies were yet to be carried out. The dead are believed to be worshipers of Paul Mackenzie’s Good News International Church.

Eight hundred hectares of Shakahola Forest have been sealed off and declared a crime scene, Kindiki said. The site is near Malindi, a city of 120,000 about 72 miles north of Mombasa. “Prima facie, large-scale crimes have been committed under Kenyan law and international law,” he said.

An employee at the Malindi mortuary said more bodies were expected.

“The information we have is that they are still digging up graves and they have identified almost 50 graves, so we expect more bodies, but we are not sure how many will arrive in the next hours or days,” he said. condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

He said from what he had seen of the bodies, “it looks like they starved to death.”

Walid Sketty, who works in Mombasa-based NGO Haki Africa’s rapid response team, said the survivors resisted attempts to give them food and water when they were rescued.

“They say they’re doing this because it’s their religion and they want to do this,” he said. “This is extremism of the first order.”

Malanda Karisa, 33, who lives in Shakahola village, in the same forest as the graves, said Mackenzie first came to the area in 2019 from Malindi town. Local leaders had “kicked him out” after he preached that children should not go to school.

“What I have witnessed is tragic,” he said. “I saw seven bodies in a grave; there is a grave from which eight people were taken.”

“I feel like there are more bodies over there in the woods.”

Sketty said his organization first alerted authorities to concerns about Mackenzie a month ago. He criticized the government for not responding earlier. “How can someone bury more than 40 people without the government knowing?” he said Villagers who spoke to The Washington Post also criticized authorities for not responding to concerns about Mackenzie.

Samson Zia Kahindi, a representative in the county assembly, said they tried to save the church followers when they learned of the hunger plans.

“We tried a rescue two weeks ago, but the area is very forested, so when they heard us coming, they went deeper into the bush – the preacher was very protected by his followers,” he said, adding that he believed 50 children he had been starving since January.

“The month of March was reserved for all the children to die. The month of April was reserved for women to die. May was that men were dying,” Kahindi said, based on the questioning of a surviving cult member.

The pastor was arrested about a month ago on suspicion of involvement in the deaths of two children, but posted bail. The bail, however, was revoked after 15 cult members were rescued on April 14. Four died soon after. An operation to identify and dig shallow graves in the forest began on Friday, state-run Kenya Broadcasting Corp reported.

Magistrate Elizabeth Usui noted that Mackenzie had not been charged but was ordered behind bars for 14 days so he could not interfere with the police investigation.

This time, the authorities will make sure that Mackenzie cannot get out of prison and continue his activities as before, Kenya’s director of public prosecutions, Noordine Haji, said, and police were carefully gathering evidence.

“We want justice to support us in this because the other time he went to court, they gave him [$80] bail, and he came back here to continue what he was doing,” he said. “This is completely unacceptable.”

Kenya Red Cross said As of Sunday, 112 people had been reported missing to a tracing desk he set up at the Malindi sub-county hospital as part of his response to Shakahola.

Mackenzie moved to Shakahola Forest from Malindi after he was arrested and charged with “several offences” in 2018, Kamau told Star Kenya in March.

Mackenzie has said he disbanded the church at the time and denies wrongdoing in the deaths of those found in recent days, the BBC reported.

What appears to be his former ministry’s website with publications from 2014 says his mission is to “nurturing the faithful holistically in all matters of Christian spirituality as we prepare for the second coming of Jesus Christ through teaching and evangelization”.

Rodgers Mwibo told The Post that he lost his mother, aunt and niece at the church. The three had gone missing from their home in Nairobi in June.

“When I finally managed to reach her, she told me she was in Malindi with a herdsman called Mackenzie who had given her half an acre of land and it was fine,” he said. “After that, we lost touch again until I saw the news that bodies of church members were being recovered.”

Benson Mutimba said he lost three of his four children to the cult. They were recruited by the pastor in demonstrations he made in schools. “My children told me that he would tell them that the world is ending, Jesus is coming and that education was bad.”

His eldest son, Felix, left to be with the preacher until his father could bring him back with the help of the police. He was unsteady and confused when he got home, Mutimba said.

“He told us that the world was ending and that he wanted to go back to the church with his brothers and everyone with his family. He said that school and work were bad, that we should also stop working,” Mutimba said. Felix later fled back to the preacher, taking his brothers with him.

Kindiki said the Kenyan government could introduce stricter regulation of religious organizations while remaining “respectful of religious freedom”, calling the deaths “a terrible blight on our conscience” and an “atrocity for so many innocent souls.”

Kenya is at least 70 percent Christian, and evangelical pastors, including those from abroad, have gained popularity in recent times, holding rallies with thousands of followers. Many also practice Christianity with a mixture of traditional beliefs that some have denounced as cults.

“Churches are already regulated. I don’t think it’s a problem of regulation, this is a problem of radical teachings,” said Nelson Makanda, secretary general of the Kenya Evangelical Alliance, in an interview on Monday.

Makanda suggested that Kenya’s progressive constitution, which guarantees freedom of worship, was to blame. “Freedom of worship is enshrined in the constitution and people can follow whoever they want to follow,” he said. “But these are offenses against the penal code that Kenya has. How did this happen under the watch of all government administrators?”

President William Ruto on Monday said Mackenzie’s alleged actions in Shakahola were “terrorist-like” as both “use religion to further their heinous acts”.

“There is no difference between Mr Mackenzie pretending and posing as a pastor when in reality he is a terrible criminal,” he said.

“As a nation we must continually watch for those who want to abuse, even in the religious sector, people who pretend to be religious, but what they do is contrary to the teachings and beliefs of the religion,” he added.

Ruto’s Christian faith was at the core of his 2022 election campaign, and he has been filmed leading the prayer before the start of cabinet meetings and praying and kneeling in church on several occasions. His wife, Rachel Ruto, attends evangelical meetings held by local and international preachers in Kenya.

Vinall reported from Melbourne, Australia.

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